Jazz Remains the Sound of Modernism

June 19, 2024 | 8 min read

Always he appeared immaculate, always elegant—when Duke Ellington took the stage at Carnegie Hall in January of 1943 for the premier of his Black, Brown and Beige symphony it was in white tie and tailed black tuxedo. Fastidious as a musician and uncompromising as a band leader, Ellington expected nothing less than polish when it came to his appearance and comportment, especially as the United States’ greatest composer making his debut in its greatest concert hall at the belated age of 43. Ellington was perhaps most responsible for extending jazz’s reach beyond juke joints and uptown clubs, of establishing it as what the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has termed “America’s classical music.”

European classical music influenced by jazz had been played here before—George Gershwin, Dmitri Shostakovich—but nothing quite of the magnitude of Ellington’s new composition. Molding the syncopated sound of American jazz into the movements of European symphonic music, Ellington desired “an authentic record of my race written by a member of it.” By the time he took the stage at Carnegie Hall, Ellington was already either the composer or consummate performer of jazz standards like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing” or “Take the A Train,” a music that conveyed American modernism, the sonic equivalent of a William Carlos Williams poem or a Jackson Pollock painting, compositions that were to music what the Chrysler Building is to architecture.

My own introduction to jazz was because of my father, a college chemistry professor, but also a saxophonist and clarinetist who was a lifelong member of the American Federation of Musicians and played with drummers that had performed with Louis Armstrong and guitarists who knew Dizzy Gillespie. He worked his way through college and graduate school by both laboring in the same machine shop as his father and playing gigs with his combo the Crescendos throughout eastern Pennsylvania. When I was growing up, he would tell me stories about trips to neon-quick New York to see live music at Birdland or the Village Vanguard, and then getting back to Reading just as dawn broke before his classes. Grading papers in his small home office, he’d spend hours listening to Pittsburgh’s WDUQ, parsing the intricacies of an improvised Dexter Gordon sax solo or the time signature in an Ahmad Jamal piano composition.

Because of my dad, I first heard not just Ellington and Armstrong, but the rough velvet of Billie Holiday’s voice and the vermouth smoothness of Ella Fitzgerald, the incomparably cool trumpet of Miles Davis on Kind of Blue and the ecstatic, sacred keening of John Coltrane’s alto sax on A Love Supreme, the blessed quantum cacophony of Charlie Parker’s saxophone on “The Bird” and the jittery puffed-cheek caffeination of a Gilespie trumpet solo from “Salt Peanuts,” the mathematical precision of Dave Brubeck’s piano from Time Out and the apophatic transcendence of Thelonious Sphere Monk’s on Misterioso, Charles Mingus’s strangely raucous bass and Art Blakey with his jazz messengers pounding out the avant-garde drum. And, throughout it all, no matter how sophisticated or complicated, how abstract or difficult, that human message which Nina Simone sung out in her deep, wide, prophetic voice: “The world is big / Big and bright and round / And it’s full of folks like me.”

coverBorn from the main branch of the 12-bar blues (also the progenitor of soul and rock, funk, and hip-hop), jazz was first an amalgamation of ragtime and spirituals, marching band music and Dixieland, performed in democratic collaboration and mediated through the still remarkably experimental method of improvisation. This is the potted-history that sees jazz as a mélange of Africa and Europe. “America is a land of synthesis in which every ethnic or religious group tends, over time, to become a part of every other,” writes critic Stanley Crouch in Considering Jazz: Writings on Genius. Despite Crouch’s tendency to smooth over jazz history so as to make it palatable to his own pet theories, there’s much that’s factual here. It’s true that no nation other than the U.S. could have created jazz for the simple reason that the historical traumas and ruptures that brought disparate groups together happened most acutely here. If jazz is the sound of modernism, it’s because it was born from the fertile but bloody soil of the American continent. In this context, the Vivaldi of jazz was Armstrong, which is to say the genius at the beginnings of the genre, but Ellington was its Bach, the polymath who supplied a rigor that most fully marks a before and after.

At Ellington’s Carnegie Hall debut, where audiences listened to weekly concerts of Bach and Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler, Ellington and his musicians performed a 45-minute symphony dedicated to Black America, expressing the history of his people from enslavement to emancipation, the talented tenths of the Harlem Renaissance and into the future. The music itself is as uncompromising as Ellington, relentlessly forward-pushing and soaring, grounded in history, but hopeful. The shape is classical, but the sound is jazz. The critics—classist, racist—were not effusive. Douglass Watt at the Daily News wrote about “the concert, if that’s what you’d call it,” while Paul Bowles at the New-York Herald Tribune called Ellington’s composition “formless and meaningless.” Duke, with his slicked back hair and pencil-thin mustache, simply responded to the pans by saying, “Well, I guess they didn’t dig it.” Ellington would perform 20 more times at Carnegie Hall, until a few years before his death, and he’d repurpose large portions of Black, Brown and Beige in a 1958 collaboration with Mahalia Jackson, but he’d never again conduct the entirety of the symphony.

There are two irrefutable axioms that can be made about jazz. The first is that jazz is America’s most significant cultural contribution to the world; the second is that jazz was mostly, though not entirely, a contribution born from the experience and brilliance of America’s Black populace who have rarely been treated as full citizens. Regarding the first claim, if the genre is not America’s “classical music,” for there is a bit of a category mistake in Wynton Marsalis’s contention which judges the music by such standards, then jazz is certainly the most indispensable and quintessential of American creations, surpassing in significance other novelties, from comic books to Hollywood films. Crouch describes Ellington, and by proxy jazz, as “maybe the most American of Americans,” even while the conservative critic was long an advocate for the music as being fundamentally our native “classical” (a role for which he was influential as Marsalis’s adviser as director of jazz at Lincoln Center). The desire to transform jazz into classical music—even my own comparison of Ellington to Bach—is an insulting reduction of the music’s innovation. Jazz doesn’t need to be classical music, it’s already jazz.

cover JazzcoverBy contrast, the radical poet and critic Amiri Baraka, temperamentally and analytically the long-time foe of Crouch, unabashedly emphasized jazz’s racial origins, arguing in Black Music that jazz’s qualities—the “microtonal, modal emphasis,” the ubiquity of free forms—“has been our philosophy, our ideology, our aesthetic, since slavery began.” Maybe somewhere between Baraka and Crouch, Africa and America, is jazz’s origin. Regardless, in jazz’s harmonies, its improvisations, its syncopation and propulsive rhythm, there is both a diagnosis of alienation as well as a prescription quixotic and beautiful, utopian and true. Jazz is an American sound, an African sound, but it is also a modern sound, a modernist sound. Alfred Appel Jr. argues in his study Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce, that to call jazz musicians “‘modernists’ is to appreciate their procedures as alchemists of the vernacular who have ‘jazzed’ the ordinary and given it new life.” Armstrong and Ellington, Coltrane and Davis, Gillespie and Parker, were central to the same project as other modernists; they reconfigured time and space to craft an alternative way of expression.

cover JazzWhich is all well and good, but making jazz just a ligament in an international modernism threatens to erase the distinctive nature of the “African” and “American” in what’s, after all, African American music, which owes nothing to the cafes and salons of Paris and Zurich, Berlin and Vienna. Jazz is first and foremost hip, which is not to say that it’s fashionable or even popular, but that it takes part in the dominant aesthetic of the American project. John Leland in Hip: The History includes jazz alongside everything from the vernacular writing of Herman Melville and Walt Whitman to the stand up comedy of Lenny Bruce, Warner Brothers cartoons, and Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac’s Beat writing, as expressions of a distinctly American sensibility best summarized by the word “hip.” The word derives from the langauge Wolof, spoken in Senegal and Gambia, and is etymologically connected to “hepi,” which connotes the ability to see, to open one’s eyes. Leland argues that “Hip begins, then, as a subversive intelligence that outsiders developed under the eye of insiders,” a means of if not being able to play the songs of Zion while by the waters of Babylon, to at least invent new ways of playing. “For better and worse, hip represents a dream of America,” writes Leland, where every citizen is guaranteed the right to self-creation in the improvised solo but also the solidarity of performing within an ensemble. An aesthetic that expresses a “dance between black and white; a love of the outsider; a straddle of high and low culture; a grimy sense of nobility; language that means more than it says.”

cover JazzAs concerns meaning more than what we say, American literature, at its best, is different after jazz than it was before, for that propulsive energy of the music inevitably would mark those authors who chose to try and do on the page what Sidney Bechet did with his clarinet or Ornette Coleman with his saxophone. For example, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man gives a description of an Armstrong performance that reminds me more of William Blake than it does music criticism. Ellison’s nameless narrator listens to Satchmo’s records with his phonograph on top volume, getting progressively more stoned while feeling the trumpet’s vibrations through the floor and walls of his apartment: “Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’s music.” To be able to “slip into the breaks and look around”—this is the alchemy of which Appel wrote, of being able to “jazz” up reality. Armstrong’s music converts the temporal into the spatial; his songs themselves become things that you can enter, that you can explore. A music that has many mansions in it, a veritable world, a universe, a dimension. There is something of Dante in Ellison, with Satchmo his Beatrice, able to ascend into ever higher celestial spheres that are somehow invisible and yet closer than the very vibrations in the floorboards, an entire creation within the space of a three-minute track, the universe in a grain of sand and eternity in “Stardust Memories.”

cover JazzJazz is victorious because of its contradictions, the most dialectical of genres. Slurred as rhythmically physical but also abstractly metaphysical, for being mere pop pablum and for baroque complexity, as too grounded in a particular place, time, and people, but somehow also as if it came from the ethereal recording studio of eternity. Theodor Adorno, the famed Marxist critic who should have known more from dialectics, infamously detested jazz in favor of the cerebral experimental music of Weimar Era German composers, writing in Prisms that “Jazz is the false liquidation of art—instead of utopia becoming reality it disappears… jazz obliterates the ideal that should be realized in art.” I’m not the first to note this, but what an absolutely stupid evaluation. Adorno is wrong, jazz doesn’t make utopia disappear—it establishes it.

Think of Ellison’s titular Invisible Man, buffeted by various factions of radical politics, dejected, ignored, and persecuted by white society. Yet in the record, in the Armstrong tune, he finds a universe. Perhaps it’s not real, a “No Place,” but that’s what utopia has always meant. And that’s the synthesis of jazz, that if it’s born from such human suffering, it also points towards a direction beyond it. The concreteness and the abstraction of the music, in both its history and at the level of composition, is held in tension, is reconciled. When asked what jazz is, Satchmo answered, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know”—and that seems the best rejoinder to Adorno. Millennia hence, when the survivors of what we’ve done live in a temperate rim at the top and bottom of the world, I imagine that there will still be people who listen to Satchmo, Trane, Bird, and Duke, that those names will endure, those melodies and rhythms will be remembered by someone, still allowing for us to slip into the breaks and look around.

Ed Simon is a staff writer for Lit Hub, the editor of Belt Magazine, and the author of numerous books, including most recently Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost; Elysium: A Visual History of Angelology; and Relic, part of the Object Lessons series. In the summer of 2024 Melville House will release his Devil's Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, the first comprehensive, popular account of that subject.